Mervyn LeRoy

Active - 1923 - 2014  |   Born - Oct 15, 1900   |   Died - Sep 13, 1987   |   Genres - Comedy, Drama, Romance, Musical, Crime

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Biography by Bruce Eder

In his time, which lasted from the '20s until the '60s, Mervyn LeRoy was one of the movie business's heavy hitters, a director/producer whose name evoked quality and entertainment in successful portions, and was associated with some of the more challenging and popular projects ever to come out of the old Hollywood.

His life might have made a good movie -- born in San Francisco at the opening of the 20th century to a well-to-do, totally assimilated Jewish family, he spent the first five years of his life in comfort -- then, at age five, his mother abandoned the marriage and her only child for the arms of another man; and not too much later, much of San Francisco (including his father's business) was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake. His father never got over it, and long after their extended stay at the refugee camp set up by the army at the Presidio, they were not much better than homeless, and little more than impoverished. The younger LeRoy took to selling newspapers to help support the two of them, and became good at it -- he got his introduction to performing one day when a patron, Theodore Roberts, a stage actor and future screen star, buying a paper from him outside the theater where he had a play running, offered him the part of a newsboy in the play Barbara Frietchie. It was the beginning of a show business career that would last more than 50 years.

LeRoy entered vaudeville in 1915, and did well for a time, but after four years, he found his options dried up, and he was left impoverished once again. It was then that fate took a hand -- LeRoy had an older cousin, Jesse L. Lasky, who had gone into the movie business in the teens and enjoyed phenomenal success with what became known as Famous Players-Lasky, later much more familiar as Paramount Pictures. He co-scripted the successful 1926 film Ella Cinders, and graduated to the director's chair the following year with No Place to Go. His major breakthrough as a filmmaker took place in 1930 with Little Caesar, a gangster film starring Edward G. Robinson that started a decade-long cycle of crime pictures at Warner Bros. It was while preparing to shoot Little Caesar and searching for an actor to play the essential role of the second male lead (which went to Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), that LeRoy attended a play called The Last Mile. The leading man, playing a convict on death row, had such a compelling stage presence that LeRoy approached him about doing a screen test, and the man agreed. Thus was Clark Gable's entrée to the film world that would make him a star and an icon, although LeRoy could not use Gable in the picture, because Warner production chief Darryl F. Zanuck was convinced that Gable's somewhat large ears would photograph poorly and mar his screen appearance. That was how Warner Bros. lost Clark Gable, though the actor was forever grateful to LeRoy for giving him his first shot at a movie career.

During the next seven years, LeRoy was responsible for several of the studio's most successful and celebrated movies, including the groundbreaking social-crime drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Gold Diggers of 1933, the comedy Three Men on a Horse, and the big budget adventure drama Anthony Adverse; additionally, on loan-out to MGM, he made the hit comedy Tugboat Annie, starring Marie Dressler. He began producing in 1937, but a dispute with the studio brought LeRoy to MGM in 1938, where he barely broke stride. Among the movies for which he was responsible was The Wizard of Oz (1939); it was LeRoy who convinced the studio to make the movie, although MGM's Louis B. Mayer talked him out of directing it, something he sorely wanted to do, having been a fan of the L. Frank Baum Oz stories since childhood. Instead, he produced it, and it became perhaps the most popular film with which LeRoy was associated of his entire career, although it was not to be considered a financial success for another quarter century, after television had re-introduced it to the world, and baby-boomers and their parents embraced it. There was also Waterloo Bridge (1940), regarded by many as Vivien Leigh's best movie; the crime drama Johnny Eager (1941); and the psychological drama Random Harvest (1942), which got him his only Academy Award nomination.

LeRoy reduced his output of movies significantly after 1942, from as many as five a year down to two or three a year, but the quality of his work improved in the process. His Madame Curie (1943) was a highly praised and successful film biography, while Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), a dramatization of the 1942 Doolittle raid on Japan, was one of the biggest hits of the war, and also helped turn Van Johnson into a major star. Additionally, LeRoy was given a special Academy Award for a short film that he directed, The House I Live In, starring Frank Sinatra, in 1945.

LeRoy's work seemed to suffer somewhat in the years immediately after the war, as the studio lost direction and lost sight of the standards of quality that it had previously maintained in writing and producing pictures. Little Women (1949) was a box office success and is fondly remembered, but it wasn't until almost two years later that LeRoy showed again what he could really do with a movie, when he directed the Roman costume epic Quo Vadis? (1951). He also inherited the wartime drama Mr. Roberts from John Ford, who was forced to leave the production owing to health problems and creative and personal disputes with its star. The movie, which by some estimations is mostly LeRoy's work but is credited to both men, was a huge hit at the time and has endured across generations, even spawning a television series in the mid-'60s.

LeRoy continued to take on challenges into the decade of the '50s, successfully bringing the chilling play The Bad Seed to the screen in 1955 with most of its Broadway cast intact. LeRoy remained busy into '60s -- his last major film was the screen adaptation of Gypsy, starring Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood, and Karl Malden. Although he was criticized by some purists for not using Ethel Merman(who had done the part on-stage) as Rose, opting instead for Rosalind Russell, LeRoy defended this decision as a matter of box office economics, Russell's name meaning far more to movie patrons than Merman's. The movie was successful enough that LeRoy, even in his 60s, was considered hot property as a director, and he was wooed away from Warner Bros. to Universal. He made one movie there, Moment to Moment, in 1966, and then found himself at odds with the studio's production chief, Edward Muhl -- he was forced to leave, and then found himself unable to return to Warner Bros.; Jack L. Warner would always have had him back, but by 1967 Warner Bros. had become part of a company called Seven Arts, and Jack Warner was gone. Moment to Moment proved to be LeRoy's last movie, as he was unable to find a place for himself in the increasingly youth-oriented Hollywood, run by executives too young to have known any of his best work, and looking for something other than such then-recent work as Gypsy.

In 1974, LeRoy published a very engaging autobiography entitled Mervyn LeRoy: Take One (Hawthorn Books), credited as being "by Mervyn LeRoy as told to Dick Kleiner." A year later, LeRoy was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the Irving Thalberg Life Achievement Award -- ironically, by that time, he was one of the very few directors or producers still around who had known and worked with Thalberg. He passed away in 1987, 21 years after finishing his last film.

Eiji Tsuburaya was one of the Japanese movie industry's top special-effects designers from the '40s through the end of the '60s. Indeed, along with Ray Harryhausen in America, he was among the first modern special-effects designers in the world to develop a public of his own. His fame was not confined to Japan; even more remarkably, the public recognition that he achieved in the '60s constituted the second act in one of the most notable technical careers in Japanese cinema.

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